David Mamet's The Old Neighborhood moves in mysterious ways.
by CHRIS DAVIS
For years the Little Theatre has been treated like Theatre Memphis' redheaded stepchild. Productions have been generally underfunded, and I won't even begin to discuss TM's past lack of support and promotion for shows in their tiny alternate space. After seeing the elaborate and certainly expensive set Michael Walker designed for Full Gallop, I was sure that things were now moving in a new and better direction. That's why it was so disappointing to walk into the same space this past Friday for David Mamet's play The Old Neighborhood and see a slapped-together set that consisted of nothing but a table and some chairs. There was nothing to give the space personality, to say where it existed in time and space, or to say what kind of people occupied that space and time. The jazz playing over the speakers started to make me queasy. My expectations, both for the show and for the Little Theatre sank rapidly, as jazz gave way to more jazz, and the lack of effort put into the set became painfully obvious.
All of that changed when the lights came up and the actors began to speak Mamet's beautifully crafted lines of baroque street poetry that are so damn hard to memorize. I felt like an idiot and an ass for having lost sight of the things I believe in most strongly. At root, good theater requires "two boards and a passion." Everything else is gravy, and too much gravy means the cook has something to hide. My shallow reliance on first impressions does not end here. My first encounter with The Old Neighborhood was not in the theater, but in the bookstore. I was so excited that there was a new Mamet piece available that I began to read it right there in the aisle. It's not a long play, and I nearly finished it. But I didn't. The thin volume, chronicling a middle-aged man's encounters with family and friends on a visit to his childhood stomping-grounds, went back on the shelf. The critic crept away certain that Mamet, having burned so brightly for so long, had at last lapsed into something resembling self-parody. Again, I was wrong. He had merely matured, and I had not.
The Old Neighborhood lacks neither the bark nor the bite of the playwright's earlier work, only the customary hard drive to the finish line is missing. It is a deeply spiritual, uncharacteristically personal meditation on the cruelty of time; on how people, things, ideas, and emotions decay and pass on into oblivion. Mamet manages to use nostalgia without becoming nostalgic. He addresses tragic childhoods and imperfect relationships without pointing the accusatory finger. He makes it clear that there are bad people in the world, but denies himself and the audience the comfort of having someone bad to blame. Chicago's angry young man has become an angry old man desperately seeking salvation. The result is a deceptively small, intensely profane play with themes as grand and timeless as any of the Western world's most sacred literature.
Within the first 15 minutes of the performance at least half-a-dozen people noisily left the theater, obviously upset by Mamet's bluish language. Poor, rude, sensitive-eared fuckers. They don't know what a good show they missed. Admittedly, the first 15 minutes were a little awkward. Keith Dodge -- who plays Joey, an overweight restaurateur trapped like a caged and wounded bear by loveless familial obligations -- did not have his lines down. And you just can't fake Mamet, no matter how hard you try. His strained Brooklyn dialect wandered about the continent, and the hefty actor (not the character, mind you) seemed obviously frustrated. It was, however, a temporary situation. By the time Dodge launched into Joey's monologue about his murderous fantasies and his desire to just disappear into the woods, both he and the audience were uncomfortable for all the right reasons.
As Bobby, the play's restless protagonist, Jeff Godsey is nothing short of excellent. Looking and sounding like a young Kevin Spacy, Godsey manages the dense and difficult language like a man born to play Mamet. To portray a man on a quest is easy, providing that the man knows exactly what he is searching for. Mamet's protagonists seldom do. Godsey finds that elusive line twixt hopelessness and yearning and walks it.
Jen Wood-Bowien, as Bobby's frumpish sister Jolly, takes it to hell and back. Seldom have I been treated to such an honest warts-and-all performance as hers. Unable to reconcile the tragic past with her inescapable present, Jolly remains trapped in a world of "could-have-beens." Bowien (sic) comes across like an eagle whose wings were clipped at birth.
Drue Glauber is only a bit less effective as Deeny, one of Bobby's former girlfriends. But she has, after all, been given some of the play's most cryptic lines to deliver. That she is able to render them intelligible at all is an achievement. That she moves the audience back and forth between delirious laughter and dark despair makes that achievement a stunning one. "Goodbye -- love," she says as the lights dim, and we know that she is talking to herself.
The Old Neighborhood at Little Theatre through April 16th.
This review may be found at www.memphisflyer.com
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